Star Interview: '˜The Moor used to be the place to shop and now it's coming back'
'I've waited 14 years for this,' says Sandra Barley.
She’s talking about the prospect of fashion chain Next moving to The Moor in Sheffield – an idea first put to her as long ago as 2004, when she joined the shopping street as its centre liaison manager.
“I was promised this brave new world. I’ve got such a history with The Moor, because I’ve seen it from the bad days to the new, great days. There have been a lot of changes.”
The place, recently transformed with a sweeping regeneration scheme bringing new retailers, restaurants, a cinema and tidier surroundings, has had a chequered history. It was virtually flattened during bombing raids in World War Two, and went from being one of the city’s prime spots – it had a Hamleys toy shop and a Habitat interiors store – to somewhere much dowdier by the time Sandra arrived.
This was before owners Aberdeen Standard Investments – previously Scottish Widows which bought the 24-acre site from RREEF, Deutsche Bank’s property division, in 2010 – began a programme of sustained improvement, producing a marked reversal of fortunes. As Sandra leaves for a new job leading the Fox Valley retail park in Stocksbridge, one would assume she’d prefer to play down The Moor’s unfashionable era – but not a bit of it.
“I’ve loved every minute. Probably the tough times rather than now, because it’s easier to make a mark when it’s rubbish. You don’t have to do much to make a difference.”
When Sandra was appointed 14 years ago, she was effectively charged with running day-to-day operations alone.
“They put me in this office, up three flights of stairs and the lift wasn’t working,” she says, sitting in more comfortable surroundings built as part of the revamp.
“My computer had viruses on it, the telephone had been cut off, and I was just furious. Anyway, it was all sorted, and I said ‘What do you want me to do?’”
The answer was to ‘go and talk to people’.
“So I did, I just went out and got everybody’s details and said ‘What do you think is wrong, what can we do to help?’ Retailers are a funny lot, but I think over the years we’ve won them over.”
She’s dealt with squatters, break-ins, leaks and emergencies on Sunday nights. She also had to field plenty of worried calls when Sheffield street artist Kid Acne was hired to decorate hoardings around the block that contained her old office.
“I can remember within 10 minutes of him starting, I don’t know how many phone calls I had saying ‘You’ve got graffiti!’ And I was like ‘Yeah, we’re paying him to do it as well!’ It was never tagged again. It kept in really good repair.”
Sandra hasn’t forgotten when she first learned of early proposals for The Moor’s £100m redevelopment.
“I can remember saying to people ‘It’s going to be fabulous, Deutsche Bank are investing’, and them saying to me ‘Deutsche Bank? They bombed it!’ I said ‘Well, they’re making amends now’.”
Aspirations were high, but there was competition in the shape of Sevenstone, the new retail quarter now remodelled as Heart of the City II. The two schemes were vying to secure the same names, and then the recession hit, stalling progress for everyone.
“But we’ve got a much better scheme now than it was going to be,” says Sandra enthusiastically.
Why has the project been realised so much more speedily than its former rival?
‘It’s the investment. Scottish Widows bought it who were acquired by Aberdeen, so it’s their faith and putting the money in that’s done it, most definitely.”
Sandra, 58, was born in Stoke-on-Trent, and came to Sheffield in 1986 through her husband’s work. “I was mummy at home, got divorced and had to get a job.”
She launched the Sheffield Business Club, a networking organisation, and went to the Chamber of Trade as its chief executive before being approached for the Moor manager role.
“I did know a lot of people in Sheffield. Some days I’ve come down The Moor and I’ve felt like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, when she says ‘Bonjour! Bonjour!’”
Latterly she has been self-employed, and spent time working with The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Sports Medicine, arranging celebrations and conferences. She has a grown-up daughter and two grandchildren, and has lived in Holmfirth for just over a year, having relocated from Sheffield. Her house is half an hour away from Stocksbridge and Fox Valley.
“It’s a new, exciting opportunity. I feel I’ve done what I can on The Moor.”
Amanda Phillips is now The Moor’s centre manager, employed to oversee the regeneration. Sandra was kept on to organise events such as the popular 999 fun day in association with the National Emergency Services Museum, which returns on April 22. Classics on the Moor, which draws crowds to see antique cars, has been another success.
“I put the events on because nobody was coming,” she says plainly. “It’s about changing perceptions. People think The Moor is charity shops and pound shops. We were never that. We’ve got Poundland, but no charity shops.”
Retail today is ‘about the whole experience’. “It’s about having something to eat, watching the world go by, and then we’ve got the cinema and a bowling alley coming up. Exciting times.”
The £18 million Moor Market was one of the first new things on the street, brought forward by the council which took the land back from Scottish Widows. Footfall has risen but attracting custom was hard at first.
“The building is beautiful, and the aspiration the council had was for a continental-style market. But I guess it’s quite big to fill. There’s some great stalls in there. I’m sure it will grow and evolve.”
H&M and New Look are both shifting from Fargate to take up space in refurbished Moor buildings.
“The thing is, we can give bigger units, which is what’s needed in Sheffield. And I suppose, really, it’s like the circle of life – The Moor used to be the place to shop. Obviously the shift went to Fargate and it’s just coming back. I don’t feel that bad, if I’m honest.”
And Sandra would love to see more people frequenting Atkinsons, a rare example of an independent department store. “There’s some fabulous stuff in there, from furniture to nice clothes and bags.”
She wraps up with some parting reflections on Sheffield.
“I think it’s a lovely city; everybody who lives here has an affinity to it. But realistically, we’re not Leeds, Manchester, or Birmingham – there’s nothing wrong with that, we’ve got strengths in other ways. It’s got everything to play for.”
‘I didn’t want people to say bad things’
Sandra Barley has been deeply emotionally invested in The Moor, and wells up while remembering how she struggled to boost its image.
“I just didn’t want people to say bad things about it. One year, there was a woman who’d bought a Christmas tree from someone on The Moor on a Saturday. Well, there was no-one around on a Saturday, you could do what you wanted at that time. When she came back to collect it, the bloke had gone. I actually contacted her and took her to Whirlow Hall Farm to get a tree so she wouldn’t feel badly about us. We would do anything we could that was positive.”
The closures of Woolworths and BHS were sad days, too.
“There were people who worked in BHS that had been there for 50 years. When that closed everybody was crying.”
But she adds: “I think what we did with the Woolworths unit, to get Theatre Deli in there, was pure genius. I wish we could have kept it. But it’s a brave new world now where hopefully we’ll get paid for stuff, whereas in the past we haven’t.”